Making it safe to help

Legislature should act to correct the state Supreme Court’s dangerous decision on the Good Samaritan law

The biblical parable of the Good Samaritan tells of a traveler who came across a man who had been robbed, beaten and left for dead. Instead of passing by, he “bound up his wounds … and took care of him.”

Lately, however, the story would need an asterisk, with the notation, “Not applicable in California.”

That’s because, in December, ruling on a case that resulted from a vehicle accident on Halloween night in 2004, the state Supreme Court issued a dangerously narrow interpretation of California’s Good Samaritan law.

When the car in which Alexandra Van Horn was riding crashed into a light pole, a co-worker, Lisa Torti, riding in another car, rushed to help her. Worried that the wrecked car would catch fire or blow up, she pulled Van Horn from the vehicle. Van Horn, who ended up being paralyzed, sued, contending Torti’s negligence in moving her caused her paralysis.

In their decision, the justices ruled, 4-3, that California’s Good Samaritan law did not give Torti immunity from liability because it applies only to people who offer medical help. The result, of course, is that people who are aware of the decision will be less likely to help others. If they offer non-medical help—such as saving someone from drowning—they could put their life savings at risk.

We’re pleased to see that the state Legislature is moving to counteract the court’s decision. State Sen. John Benoit, a Republican from Riverside, on Tuesday (Jan. 6) introduced a bill that would correct the ruling.

Benoit is a former highway patrolman who says that, during his 31 years in law enforcement, he came across people helping accident victims numerous times. “It’s one of the places where you see human kindness come out a lot,” he told the Sacramento Bee. “I’d hate to see anything that would dissuade people from doing that.”

Benoit’s bill would extend the protections of the Good Samaritan law to anyone providing good-faith emergency care, not just medical care. The Legislature should approve it as soon as possible, before the mindset of legal liability sets in.

The parable of the Good Samaritan speaks to what is best about human beings—their desire to care for each other. The law shouldn’t act to discourage such kindness.